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As a fiction writer you might not think knowing how to interview is important, but there will be times that you need information you can’t get any other way. The internet and library are great sources but sometimes they don’t get to the heart or emotional aspect of what you need to know to write your book. That’s when knowing how to interview comes in handy. Being properly prepared for your interview makes you look like the professional you want to be.

Interviewing can be daunting at first and may take a few times doing it before you and the stomach butterflies come to an agreement. I recommend reading craft articles on the subject and watching interviews on television and reading them in magazines to see how others handle the process. If, after all that studying, you’re still nervous about the task, find an interesting friend or two and ask if you can practice on them. Once you have the hang of it you’ll do fine.

Having been a freelance writer for over 14 years I’ve interviewed a number of people for many types of non-fiction articles.  I’ve used a tape recorder as well as a notebook and pencil and even both methods together since tapes can sometimes catch more background noise than the interviewee’s voice and be hard to hear. Both methods of recording need transcription which should be done as soon as you can after the interview, especially if your notes are handwritten, since there’s a tendency to scribble to make sure you get it all down.

It’s impossible to write every word down that your interviewee says, unless you know shorthand, which I didn’t. So I created my own shorthand by leaving out vowels, making a dash for the word “the”, using symbols like @ for “at”, and so on. My shorthand was so convenient that I still use it for notes when I’m brainstorming with my husband or critique partners. Using my method I was able to capture almost all of the interviewee’s words, which kept me from asking them to repeat what they’d just said and interrupting the flow of the interview. A practice you want to avoid, if possible. Also, if you are interviewing multiple people at the same time be sure to notate which person is speaking so you can make the proper attributions should you end up quoting or paraphrasing someone.

Here is a list of things (which is by no means totally complete) that I learned along the way about conducting a successful interview.

  1. Know what you want to take away from the interview. If you are just searching for general information about a job or subject, look it up yourself. Save your interview time for more specific information that you can’t find other places: the emotional aspects of a job or situation, the struggles needed to achieve a goal, provocative questions or slants on a subject that haven’t been answered already.
  2. Educate yourself about your subject beforehand. This will keep you from asking stupid questions, let the interviewee know you are serious, and not waste your or the other person’s time.
  3. Make a list of questions to ask but be prepared to improvise. Sometimes letting the interviewee ramble just a bit can provide interesting information.
  4. Engage in small talk at the beginning of the interview for a few moments. This might include a thank you for agreeing to see you, a brief outline of what you plan to do with the article, comments about their book or job or whatever—which you have researched of course, or a sincere compliment to the interviewee. The goal is to set the other person at ease before you start the interview.
  5. Make sure your opening question focuses on the reason you are doing the interview, encourages the person to talk (no yes or no questions here), is challenging because it addresses a new slant that hasn’t been discussed before, and isn’t so confrontational that it puts them off.
  6. Ask more open ended questions than ones that will elicit a yes or no answer. Open ended questions cause the interviewee to talk more and offer you more chances for unexpected information.
  7. Don’t ask your most important questions at the very beginning of the interview or at the end. It’s better to ease into them.
  8. You are there to learn about the other person, not comment on everything he says, so keep your remarks to a minimum and don’t interrupt.  If the interviewee says something you want to discuss more, make a note and come back to it when he’s finished with the subject at hand.
  9. Make the interview appointments at the subject’s convenience, if possible, and don’t be late or run over the allotted time.
  10. Always be certain you have the correct spelling of the interviewee’s name, their job title, or other pertinent information that might be included in the article or your book. There is nothing worse than misspelling someone’s name. You hate it, I hate it, and so will they.

Have you ever interviewed someone for a book you’re writing?